More EQ, Less Angst

It’s Thursday! How has your week been? Mine has been full of feelings.

And for lawyers, feelings can be tricky. One thing our legal forebears didn’t yet know, is that we humans don’t do thoughts alone. The reality is that every decision we make and action we take is interjected with emotion. The two are inseparable. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate and author of Thinking Fast and Slow, won his Nobel Prize in Economics for proving this to be true.

Humans are a meaning-making species

As neuroscientist Antonio Dimassio puts it, “Humans are neither thinking machines nor feeling machines. We are feeling machines that think.”

Uh oh. By the time we graduate from law school and take the bar exam, we’re so entrenched in analytical thinking, many of us have disconnected from the feelings intertwined with our decisions and actions, and have difficulty articulating our emotional experience. It’s not surprising that researchers have identified this disconnect as a primary source of the distress that many lawyers encounter.

I know this was once true for me, and I’ve seen it in the attorneys with whom I work. Our emotional vocabulary diminishes to “fine,” or “stressed,” when asked how we feel in a given situation, or about a particular matter or project.

Yet because we humans are “feeling machines that think,” applying ourselves to rebuilding our emotional vocabulary is essential if we’re to have successful practices and relationships, both professional and personal.

What can we do about this?

Here are a few steps to get you started that both increase emotional intelligence (EQ) and ease our angst.

1.       Notice and name the feeling associated with your work tasks. Kahneman tells us (based on tons of research) that we can significantly improve performance by thinking pleasant thoughts and moving into a better mood before we begin a difficult or unpleasant task, creating what he calls, “cognitive ease.” This step rebuilds your emotional vocabulary. Naming the feeling and creating this mood shift can also change the experience of interacting with a difficult client or processing a judge’s adverse ruling. Naming a difficult emotional experience (famously coined “Name it. Tame it” by Dr. Dan Seigel), dissipates it. We have myriad opportunities to apply this throughout the day; go for a few.

2.       Dispel automatic negative thoughts (ANTs). ANTs are those thoughts that arise unbidden from our overprotective reptilian brains. I think of these thoughts like ants that swarm our picnic. They’re useless, unhelpful and we have to shoo them away. Our modern brain is actually designed to do exactly that—to override those unhelpful thoughts and replace them with constructive optimism. Use it to your advantage.

3.       Choose your mood and mindset, for the day or the hour. What mindset serves you today, or right now? Do you have lots of meetings, virtual presentations, and calls? Move into a mindset that’s upbeat and high energy. Have a quiet day of ahead of drafting documents? Go for flow. Our brains and bodies respond to our direction.

Being a “feeling machine that thinks” is actually a very useful construct for lawyers who rely exclusively on analytical thinking in day-to-day legal work. This gift of self-awareness is a human superpower. Paying close attention to the components of this ability improves emotional intelligence, wellbeing and paves the way to thriving.